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The Places that Camden Built: Part 3, Icons

Varda 007 Cropped-Small 1
Varda Zisman, View of Euston Tower & Post Office Tower from Primrose Hill. July 1972

Camden is fortunate to boast several of London’s architectural icons. Yet these are iconic in many different senses of the word; some punctuate the skyline, adding to the obelisk-esque stature of the General Post Office Tower (now BT Tower) forged in the White Heat of modernity just before the Borough’s formation in 1964; some are distinctly visually symbolic for their aesthetic and tectonic qualities; whilst others acheive iconicism through their break from traditional typologies and the challenge of historically conceived expectations.

The Kentish Town InterAction Centre (1976) designed by Cedric Price adopted the latter two of these qualities. It was designed to embody a distilled portion of the ideas of the radical Fun Palace Price had developed in the early 60s with famous theatre director Joan Littlewood to create a vast, open structure which could give rise to any manner of activities through the disassembly and reconstruction of space, yet which had failed to come to fruition in built form. The InterAction Centre took on the central tenets they had proposed of flexibility, fluidity and indeterminacy, providing a base for a broad range of creative pursuits for the local community. Yet despite growing to be much loved, the centre was always intended as a temporary structure. Having initially been given a 10-year lifespan in reflection to its inevitable social and technological obsolescence, Price himself argued the case for its eventual demolition in 2003 (the same year Price died)[1]. Yet despite its demise this project can be shown to have roots in seminal structures of British architecture, particularly in the HighTech style adopted by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, and is noted by the critic Reyner Banham to be a key influence on Paris’ Pompidou Centre by the latter.

Interaction 1
InterAction Centre

The postmodern TV-AM building (1983) is another radical structure iconic to the Borough, whose distinctive eggcups in reflection of the TV program’s identity adorned the canalside roofline. It is noted as being part of the avant-garde of the love-it-or-hate-it Postmodern movement in the UK, providing a radically new façade to Hawley Crescent, whilst retaining the 1920s garage building which stood on the site in testament to its industrial past. Yet as TV-AM was brought to a close in 1993, and the architect Terry Farrell has since stated that “the building was only meant to last seven years”, this otherwise iconic structure has been overhauled in 2013 to provide a new identity in line with its new owners MTV, removing the huge 3D lettering which bookended the site, the stereotypically 80s entrance arch in pop colours and industrial forms, and features such as the Japanese internal garden familiar to viewers of the show. Yet the eggcups, key to the original identity, have become so well loved it was deemed essential that they should remain.

TV-am building Camden
TV-AM building

The historian Nikolaus Pevsner decreed that Colin St John Wilson’s British Library (1982-97) in St Pancras was “one of the most distinguished contributions to the area, and Britain’s only major public building of the later 20th Century”[2], which if that isn’t accolade enough to make this list I’m not sure what is. Built for a staggeringly unusually long 300-year life span, the redbrick ziggurat form is again here adopted to enable penetration of diffused light from the roof down into the reading rooms. Oddly acontextual red framed portal windows are counterpointed with a more typologically familiar civic clock tower, with the overall composition evoking the curved walls and open plan civic nature of Scandinavian modernism (with distinct Oriental influences) in an attempt to bridge the gap between Sir George Gilbert Scott’s historic St Pancras hotel next door and its adjacent contemporary context. A vast, internally exposed central bookstack runs through the main circulation space and separates the open, public areas from the hushed reading rooms where exposed wood and leather predominate the interiors, which have the air of a private members’ club. Yet the privilege of access to this hallowed space is free to all applicants for a readers’ pass. In the building’s detail and scale as well as its use the message is clear; the vast collection is brought here in direct relation to you, the user.

The Library had originally been planned to be part of the wholescale redevelopment of the site south of the British Museum (and adjacent universities) complex in Bloomsbury in 1962 led by Leslie Martin, but instead the 20 year development project relocating the British Library to the site of the old Somers Town goods station[3] enabled the conservation of large swathes of Bloomsbury. It also latterly facilitated Norman Foster’s lauded Great Court redevelopment with its bulbous glazed roof opening up the central space around the reading room (2000), which rationalized years of infill building in the court and enabled the restoration of Sydney Smirke’s original 1857 facades.

British Library

The creation of a pedestrianised university precinct in Bloomsbury had first been mooted within the 1943 County of London Plan, in line with the rezoning ethos which drove the London County Council’s wide-reaching proposals for the redevelopment of the County. A gradual phased development, the central stages of the creation of this precinct - constituting the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, Institute of Education, and the SOAS library (1968-73) – by Denys Lasdun[4] was granted planning permission in 1965 although not completed until 1976. Swathes of glazing with prefabricated bronze anodized aluminium spandrel panels is contrasted by projecting concrete volumes encasing escape stairs, service towers and lecture theatres. The overall impression of the composition, which steps up to a six-story block on Bedford way which acts as a protective wall to the precinct – is that of a stark monolith in the midst of its Georgian surroundings. Yet grander plans for wholesale rebuilding in this style – along with the incorporated high-level pedway network akin to that still at least partially in evidence in the Barbican complex - were curtailed by a growing desire for conservation and a 1980s penchant for mock-Georgian architecture.

Colonel Richard Seifert[5] built two iconic structures in Camden, both right on on the edge of the boundary: Space House, positioned just off Kingsway at almost the southernmost tip of the Borough is a formalistically distinct drum like building, developed in response to the desire to maximize the office floor space within whilst negotiating the daylight requirements of the surrounding housing[6]. It shares a genealogy of precast y-shaped concrete units – if not form – with the inflected slab of Centre Point (1961-66, with designer George Marsh, listed grade II) on Tottenham Court Road. These units eliminated the need for scaffolding during construction, which given that Centre Point stands at 398ft high over a busy traffic junction is rather useful, as well as providing a key aesthetic for the building.

Space House
centre-point 1
Centre Point

There is certainly no shortage of possible projects which could be outlined here, but the selection presented hopefully gives a broad view of the range of styles and typologies to which this overarching ethos of innovation applied, and demonstrates the wealth of architectural quality that Camden has built within its boundaries over the past 50 years – as well as highlighting the opportunities for what may yet be to come.

Article by Ruth Lang. #Camden50

[1] The other options presented having been the Southbank, Covent Garden or the Docklands.

[2] Lasdun had earlier built the Royal College of Physicians in the Borough along similar sculptural and volumetric principles

[3] Seifert also built the Pirate Castle youth centre on the Regent’s Canal in 1977, an icon in its own right (albeit in a vary different manner).

[4] Grindrod, John “Concretopia”, Old Street, Brecon 2013

[5] Having worked primarily a conceptual architect, his sole surviving structure is thus now the aviary at London Zoo, just over the borough border in Westminster.

[6] Pevsner, Nikolaus and Cherry, Bridget, “The Buildings of England: London 4: North”, Yale University Press, 1994